Back when Al Gore invented the Internet, I’m sure he didn’t truly appreciate the significance of the event. In fact, the original intent was to facilitate military communication in the event of a large-scale war, so the idea of the distributed interconnected networks was a natural. What they hadn’t counted on was the impact this new tool would have on the business world.

Looking back in history, the only other development I can think of with similar impact would be the invention (or perhaps the mass production) of the automobile. By being able to travel further faster, the world suddenly realized a need for a whole bevy of new business ventures, and the opportunities prompted creativity. Still, I think the Internet now dwarfs the car in the overall effect on the economic success of so many.

Many brick and mortar stores at first fretted and later embraced the Internet as a medium to help them compete. Now, with the remarkable rise of the personal computer and faster processing, cloud-based applications called “software as a service” are driving a dramatic increase in new internet-based businesses. But even these two ideas, which seemed at odds with each other, are really points on the same compass. Aside from improving overall communication, extending knowledge to the furthest reaches of humanity, and providing spotlights into everyone’s most mundane activities, the Internet is really all about business. And I mean business of all sizes, kinds, and color.

Lest you think it’s all about bits, bytes and things ethereal, I simply point to two examples of business as usual being done in very unusual ways. The first is micro-lending, whereby people of all types can invest small amounts of money in a distributed network. I wrote about this a few months ago; you can see that article here.

The other is a different way of funding projects called Kickstarter. Kickstarter bills itself as the “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.” Having surpassed one million users and $100 million dollars pledged, Kickstarter is working to change the way that we think about funding. It’s worth noting that these are not investments in exchange for ownership or influence. Kickstarter is organized more like the National Endowment for the Arts, providing ‘grants’ for great ideas. Except in this case, the funding is provided not by the government doling out your tax dollars, but from people who who would simply like to see the project come to life and believe in the concept enough to vote with their own money. (To put this in some context, the 2011 fiscal year budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is $154 million. At the current pace of more than $2 million in pledges each week, Kickstarter backers are pledging more than $100 million a year.)

The Kickstarter concept is fairly simple. Creators join the network and create a page describing what they’re trying to do and why they think it’s worthwhile. Backers can then pledge their money to the cause. Each project has both a targeted budget and a timeline to raise the funds. The budgets are based on projected amounts required to get things up and running and the timeline serves as an impetus to keep things moving. If the pledges match the budget before the time elapses, they are collected and funneled to the creator and the creator then…well, creates! If the project fails to reach the funding goal, no money changes hands.

So far, Kickstarter backers have funded more than 13,000 projects in the worlds of music, art, film, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields. Kickstarter says, “Projects are big and small, serious and whimsical, traditional and experimental. They’re inspiring, entertaining and unbelievably diverse.” For backers, the rewards vary from that warm, happy feeling of helping someone create something from nothing, to unique, individual rewards that are often related to the project itself. (This is really difficult to describe, but see this cool sculpture project for an idea. )

So if you have a big idea, like building some a distributed network to allow instant communication around the world (thanks again, Al!) or a small idea, like hosting an outdoor square dance in Dallas, Kickstarter is the place to get it off the ground. Or, if you’re more of an enabler than the enabled, sign up today and back a project you find interesting.

(Incidentally, that whole “Al Gore inventing the Internet thing” was just a joke. Everyone knows it’s an alien technology.)

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